Body scanner poses very small health risk

    As airports get ready for for the busiest flying days of the year, some passengers are voicing concerns about the health risks of the full-body scanners now being used at some security checkpoints.

    The possibility that the scans increase the risk of cancer is one of many issues raised by travelers opposed to the practice. 

    The Transportation Security Administration and some radiation professionals maintain that the scanners are mostly safe. They say you could walk through a scanner one-thousand times and receive no more radiation than a chest X-ray.

    The scanners, called “backscatter” machines, bounce radiation off of your skin to reveal any hidden objects. A hospital x-ray actually penetrates the skin and bones.

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    The full-body scanners are only located in Terminal F at the Philadelphia International Airport.

    Ann Davis, a spokeswoman for the TSA., says one trip through the scanner is equal to the amount of radiation a person gets for every two minutes of flying time, since the thinner air at high altitude blocks less cosmic radiation.


    “So consider if you fly regularly or going on a particularly long flight your going to be exposed to more radiation levels that you would ever be exposed to by the couple of seconds that you need to stand in the scanner,” she said.

    Andrew Maidment, chief of radiation physics at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, agrees the scanners won’t harm most individuals. But he’s still not a fan of the body-scan program.


    “I do not believe these scanners have that much benefit,” he said. “I believe they have some benefit. I think they can be used in certain situations, but i think as a global screening policy for every passenger, it’s ill conceived. We do not have sufficient benefit to justify the associated risk.”

    Maidment said the scans might contribute to 30 cancers a year, among all the people scanned globally. That might not seem like much, but he said if you apply the same benefit-to-risk calculation used when proposing to use radiation in a medical setting, the machines will need to save 900 lives to be worth the health risk of the scans.

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